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An Embarrassment of Riches: the Inside Story of the World’s Biggest Con
January, 2003

Razor Magazine

By Russ Baker


When Shahla Ghasemi, a resident of Tampa, Florida, got a phone call about an inheritance coming to her and her husband from someone who had died in Nigeria, she almost laughed. She didn’t know anyone in Nigeria. Truth be told, she had no idea where Nigeria was.  But the man on the phone was so persuasive that Mrs. Ghasemi and her husband Ali-Reza, a medical doctor, put their heads together and came up with a possible explanation . Perhaps one of Dr. Ghasemi’s former partners from an import-export venture, who like the Ghasemis fled Iran’s fundamentalist revolution in 1979, had ended up in Nigeria, and for some reason had decided to make them his beneficiaries.  

In fact, the Ghasemis big mistake was not immediately hanging up the phone. For that mistake, they paid a huge price  – as victims of one of the world’s most widespread and devastating swindles. They ended up mortgaging their house and losing $350,000 to the so-called Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud.

Scams, from bogus land sales to pyramid schemes, are nothing new. Neither is the Nigerian scam (also called “419” after a Nigerian penal code section.)  It has been around for about 20 years, but its original growth was limited by the costs and effort of promoting it by phone, letter, or fax. Via the Internet, however, millions of pitches can be pumped out effortlessly and at virtually no cost. According to the US Department of Justice, the number of 419 e-mail solicitations increased 900 percent from 2000 to 2001. (In Oslo, Norway, alone, police reportedly received more than 30,000 complaints in a single year.) 

Altogether, thousands of victims, from Melbourne to Milan, have cumulatively lost an estimated $5-12 billion.  Many victims, including large numbers of elderly, have lost their life savings; some have been driven to suicide by their debts and their shame.   

Scams for Every Taste 

Many versions of the con exist, but all bring the welcome news that unanticipated riches await. The most common come-on is a request from a purportedly privileged African (often with a famous last name, and not necessarily a Nigerian) for help in moving a huge sum into a foreign bank account. I received one such pitch recently, from someone claiming to be the nephew of the late Angola guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi. Expressing weariness of perpetual civil war in his country, he said he faced death threats from his uncle’s rivals, and was eager to transfer abroad $18.5 million that Uncle Jonas had made in the diamond trade. Would I help, act as his agent, sign some papers, make my bank account available as repository? Easy as pie, and, for my meager efforts, I’d pocket $2.7 million. 

Most of us are wary, with good reason, of something-for-nothing offers and anything with a whiff of illegality. So it’s tempting to dismiss 419 victims as, at a minimum, foolish, and, probably, greedy schemers.  “The problem is anybody who gets hooked into that obviously knows the whole thing is not right and is hoping to get away with it,” says  Njall Hardarson, retired owner of a sheet metal company who runs a website  on 419 scams from Manchester, England.

Yet many victims turn out to be essentially law-abiding, reasonably intelligent and generally responsible. Their ranks include successful, respected businesspeople and  church congregation leaders. One explanation is that though the scam solicitations seem  slightly incredible, they are also based in reality. For example, it’s a common practice of powerful people in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere to accrue and transfer fortunes abroad. “The former head of state of almost any African country has stolen billions, and moved it out of the country,” says Hardarson, who began investigating the scam after being deluged by offers. “People know this, they read about it, and they say, ‘Why can’t I get a piece of that?’ “

Among the myriad varieties are fraudulent solicitations of goods in fulfillment of nonexistent Nigerian government contracts, or offers to share in deliberate overbillings of invoices. These and others are described  at the US government website; actual solicitation letters are posted at the private Norwegian website Many appeals push sympathy and urgency buttons, perhaps claiming that money intended for widows and orphans is being plundered by corrupt local officials, or warning that if help does not come soon, the money will be spent on weapons that spread death and destruction.

Even after victims realize they have been scammed, most are too embarrassed, or scared, to come forward.  Mrs. Ghasemi is unusual in her decision to go public with the details of her ordeal, which provide insight into the sophistication of the plotters, who employ the classic tools of all manipulators: gradually increasing the stakes and the risks, and countering objections and doubts with increasingly implausible and audacious scenarios. 

An Expensive Call 

The Ghasemi saga began in August, 2000, when Mrs. Ghasemi, who works as registered nurse in her husband’s medical office, took the call concerning an unexpected inheritance. Her initial doubts vanished when an impressive, official-looking confirmation document emerged from the fax machine. The name of the deceased party didn’t look familiar, but it did appear to be Iranian.  

The Ghasemis were advised that they would need a good lawyer in Nigeria to handle the paperwork.They asked their correspondent for a suggestion, and the next day received a call from an attorney named Williams. Mr. Williams said he’d need a standard fee of $7,500, not a small sum but certainly modest given that the Ghasemis share of the $27 million estate would be $7 million. As requested, they wired the money, via Western Union, so that Mr. Williams could register their claim. A few days later they received word of a snag, confirmed by documents with a government seal: their deceased friend had failed to pay an environmental fine. The Ghasemis reasoned that the fine, $40,000, was a pittance compared to what they were waiting to receive, so they again went to Western Union. The following Thursday, the lawyer called from Nigeria to report that the funds would be available to the Ghasemis by Monday. Paperwork confirming the impending funds transfer, via a Swiss bank, came through.   

But on Monday, the lawyer called with a further complication. Their deceased friend had apparently failed to pay taxes of approximately $70,000. Mrs. Ghasemi suggested that the government simply deduct that amount from the full bequest, but the lawyer said that Nigerian law did not permit that. When she refused to send any more money via Western Union, the attorney gave her instructions to wire it from her bank to an account in Nigeria.

Again, the Ghasemis were told that  the funds had been released by the Nigerian government; a representative would soon call from Atlanta with final instructions for collecting it. When a man called from First Union Bank, he told Dr. Ghasemi that, due to the size of the payment, the couple would need to fly to Atlanta to pick it up in person. When they arrived in Atlanta and  went directly to First Union, they were mystified to learn that the bank had no such employee . When they called their contact on his cell phone, he angrily told them that they had misunderstood or not followed instructions, and that he was waiting for them at their hotel.  

A half hour later, they were met by two Nigerians, one resplendent in ceremonial robes, the other in a designer suit, with an expensive watch, briefcase and cologne. The duo examined the Ghasemis’ identification and verified their signatures. Told that they would have to pay a transaction handling fee of $11,500,  the Ghasemis offered to pay by credit card, but were told that would be unacceptable. And a check would take several days to clear. The Ghasemis went to First Union Bank, and were met there by one man, who took the fee, in cash. He said the money would be in their account by 4pm. It wasn’t, and the Ghasemis, with mounting frustration, headed for the airport and home.

En route, their mobile phone rang. It was a man, angrily telling them that the fault again lay with them -- they had not finished the necessary paperwork. He insisted that the Ghasemis turn around and check back into their hotel, which the weary, increasingly dubious couple did. Around dusk, two other Nigerian men came. They informed the Ghasemis that the government had finally approved the funds release – in cash. Mrs. Ghasemi told the man that she couldn’t accept $7 million in currency, that it sounded clearly illegal and impractical. The men offered to provide supporting paperwork. The Ghasemis proposed that the men show them the cash,  that they would stay overnight and then travel with the men in the morning to First Union, where they would deposit it. The man agreed, and asked them to accompany him to the parking lot, and to his car.  

Speaking of Money “Laundering” 

Mrs. Ghasemi at this point had deep misgivings, but her husband went outside to the car. In a box where he expected to find greenbacks, he saw instead black, waxy paper. The men explained that it was diplomatic money, a specially treated currency which is temporarily blackened for security reasons. They returned to the hotel room, the man lugging a tin of chemicals. He proceeded to wash one of the black pieces of paper, and sure enough, it turned out to be a $100 bill. However, there were many bills (around 70,000 of them) to be cleaned, the chemicals themselves expensive – and the Ghasemis would have to pay a fortune for literally laundering the money: $185,000.  

At this, Mrs. Ghasemi got angry. Their Nigerian attorney had not told them of any such procedure or the cost attached, and so the couple flew back to Florida without their money. At 5am the next morning, they called their attorney in Nigeria. Mr. Williams expressed outrage about the diplomatic money ploy, and said he would call directly to the Nigerian President’s office, where he had connections. Two days later, he called back. In a meeting at the president’s office, he’d learned that because of budgetary restrictions, the government did indeed insist that recipients of diplomatic monies cover the cost of the chemical. The attorney suggested the Ghasemis keep a receipt, that at year's end the Nigerian government was going to be receiving aid from the US and Japan, at which time it would reimburse the chemicals fee. Meanwhile, the Ghasemis kept receiving phone calls from the man in Atlanta, who warned them that if they did not want to pay the cost of the chemicals, there were other recipients waiting for their money who would be given priority. Finally, the man offered to personally “advance” $35,000 toward the chemicals, but that the Ghasemis would have to come up with the additional $150,000, which they did. 

There were, it seemed, two ways to collect their money. One was to open something called a Transit Account (but such an account would have to be opened with an initial deposit of $350,000) – plus the man wanted her to buy him a Rolex watch so he could give that to Nigeria’s president in return for obtaining a plum job. Alternatively, the Ghasemis (and no one else – he stressed that fact) could go back to Atlanta where a limo would pick them up from the airport and take them to the cleaning house so they could witness the money being cleaned. Dr. Ghasemi insisted, over his wife’s objections, that they had no choice; otherwise they would lose not only the $7 million, but all the fees they had already advanced.

Mrs. Ghasemi had had enough. Ignoring the Nigerians’ warning not to violate the confidentiality of the transaction, Mrs. Ghasemi called an American friend, a professional, for advice. That’s when she got the bad news: she and her husband had been taken for a very long and costly ride.

Mrs. Ghasemi called the Tampa FBI office; it was a holiday weekend; a duty agent picked up. “Maybe it was because of my accent, but he told me he couldn’t do anything,” she recalls. The next day, she called the US embassy in Lagos. The man who answered the phone seemed to have a faint non-American accent, but said he was an American named Dr. Mora, and came from Washington, DC. He listened to her story, took down her contact information, and excused himself to make another call. After a delay, he came back with startling news: It wasn’t a scam after all. He’d confirmed that Dr. Ghasemi was  in fact a beneficiary of monies held by the Nigerian government; he even faxed a confirmation on an embassy letterhead. And he said he would go personally to the Central Bank of Nigeria  to find out what the problem was. Mrs. Ghasemi then called her brother-in-law, from whom they had borrowed $150,000, with the news. But he insisted she call the State Department. At State, she was again warned about 419 scams. But when she explained how she’d just been assured by the US embassy that the monies were real, and after she confirmed that she had dialed a real number at the embassy, the State Department man became alarmed. He told her this meant that the criminal ring perpetrating the fraud actually had a confederate working inside the embassy. (Mrs. Ghasemi says that she was not the only person who got bad “advice” from the embassy, a situation that has apparently been rectified.)

Soon, the Secret Service had assigned agents to the Ghasemi case. She learned that she and her husband were in some ways lucky: they were still alive and in one piece. Some victims who had come to Nigeria to clear things up personally, had ended up in a bad way. Nigeria can be a dangerous place in general -- US consular staff travel in armored vehicles. But it’s especially risky for 419 victims. Once the scam operators conclude they can’t expect any more money transfers from their targets, they get down to basics: cash, jewelry, passport. As Annie McGuire, another “419 vigilante,” who operates the website, puts it:  “They beat people, shoot ‘em, drag ‘em into the jungle, drop ‘em into a river, whatever.”

Fighting Back

Victims and their advocates have been trying for years, with little success, to shut down the criminal rings behind 419 scams. But the perpetrators are hard to prosecute. They purposely work across jurisdictions, with members operating in various countries, and moving on frequently, often using false or stolen passports, before the law in any one place can catch up with them. A scammer may be in Paris one week, London the next. Their “offices” are typically Internet cafes -- in some of these, in West Africa, it’s not uncommon to find rows of plotters simultaneously hard at work mass-emailing 419 pitches. They troll bulletin boards, buy e-mail lists, and use programs that grab e-mail addresses off the web. They close the initial e-mailbox within a few days after a bite, then have their victims contact a second and then a third mailbox.  (In most cases the victims are not specifically targeted. The scamsters figure that if they¹re contacting people in developed countries, there¹s a 50/50 chance they will find someone with savings or access to credit. Even comparatively poor people have been targeted; they can often find money by borrowing from relatives or mortgaging their house.)

The conspirators are highly skilled at what they do, having been educated at so-called “scam schools” where they learn legal and financial parlance and persuasion skills,  overcoming doubts, handling unexpected crises, and playing a variety of roles, from lawyer to government official to banker. They learn how to vary their pitches. And they constantly compare notes and update their approaches to reflect changing world conditions.

Although not all of the fraudsters are Nigerian, the vast majority are. The country itself is a nonpareil in the crowded ranks of nations where corruption predominates. In fact, financial fraud is such big business that it is thought to rank between third and fifth among Nigeria’s income sources. (Even would-be fraudsters get defrauded.  For example, the most pathetic amateurs end up buying, unawares, “used” address lists of prospective suckers who have already been approached by others.)

Nigeria is still essentially a tribal country, with clan members protecting and assisting one another. Some experts speculate that the popularity of the scams there and elsewhere in Africa is prompted by a psychology of revenge for the ravages of colonialism, whose legacy still leaves Africa far behind the rest of the world in almost every measure of development. The 419 operators surely see their leaders and foreign investors making fortunes while they live mired in poverty. Scammers may thus justify in their minds the victimization of others, but in the end, it is not just foreigners who suffer, but the vast majority of ordinary, hardworking, honest  and extremely poor  Nigerians, as the 419 scams further poison the climate for legitimate trade and investment in their country.

It seems to many that the scams could not continue in full force without the tacit or explicit approval of high Nigerian officials. The Nigerian government vigorously denies involvement, and says that it has taken increasingly aggressive measures to curb the problem, which it correctly argues has badly tarnished the country’s image and damaged legitimate trade.

But the tiny number of arrests over the years tells another story. “Unfortunately, local police and other officials have not provided assistance to those caught up in scams,” according to the US State Department’s website, “Tips for Business Travelers to Nigeria.”  Occasional, highly publicized raids don’t seem to make a dent, especially since most of those arrested are soon on the streets again. (A man who received wired monies from the Ghasemis was arrested but released.) Indicative of the official attitude, Nigerian authorities have on occasion arrested foreign victims and charged them with being involved in an illegal scheme. Meanwhile, there’s the question of how the plotters manage to gain access to reams of impressively-forged government letterheads and bank seals. They even manage to gain access to government offices for the victims who actually can be persuaded to travel to Nigeria. Government officials may be full participants in the scam or simply renting their offices for the afternoon.

Mrs. Ghasemi learned the complexity of the web when she called a Nigerian senator in her efforts to recoup her money. His office gave her a private number for the office of the governor of the Central Bank, where a man promised to get to the bottom of things, and asked her to fax key documents. When she saw the number of the fax machine, she recognized it as that of the plotters themselves. 

Meanwhile, most other governments have been slow to pursue the criminals or pressure Nigeria. Hardarson, one of the first to launch an anti-419 website, notes that the country continues to be an important income source for First World companies, notably large oil exploration firms like Shell and Texaco. “If there was any urgency, something would have been done a long time ago.” There’s also little sympathy in law enforcement for “victims” who perhaps should have known better. And those who do want to take action are hampered in their investigations and prosecution efforts because of the range of jurisdictions from which the perpetrators operate and how frequently they relocate.   

Lately, however, the situation seems to be improving. Many agencies, including the US Secret Service, Scotland Yard, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police now have special 419 task forces. First World banks, which for years did nothing to warn potential victims, now issue standard warnings to anyone transferring large sums to Nigeria. And the Nigerian government recently convened a high-level conference on 419 in New York City, attended by the president of Nigeria himself. At that meeting, the Ghasemis received the welcome news that the Central Bank of Nigeria had been able to identify the Nigerian bank where their money had ended up, and were preparing to refund it in its entirety.

But the larger battle shows no sign of being won. The practice has now spread all over West Africa, and, for that matter, all over the globe. One question of growing urgency is where the vast profits end up. Experts note that Al Qaeda and other terror outfits have partially funded their operations through financial fraud, and note that Nigeria is 50 percent Muslim. Interestingly, the money Mrs. Ghasemi’s bank wired to the 419 conspirators landed in an account in Lebanon.  

Meanwhile, Mrs. Ghasemi still gets calls from Nigeria, every week. The day before we spoke, she’d just gotten a call, purportedly from someone in the presidential palace, who apologized on behalf of the president. The man explained that he was the director of the government’s anti-fraud operations. Mrs. Ghasemi checked, and he wasn’t.

Ultimately, it is not that easy to help victims, many of whom cling to denial. When Mrs. Ghasemi asked one man who had already lost $250,000  to join in a protest action, he explained that he didn’t have the $1000 for a plane ticket, then flew to Nigeria to find out what had happened to his promised millions. In Lagos, he was promptly relieved of another $500,000. Even after that, the man’s business partner still does not believe that they were victims of a scam.


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